You’d be forgiven for having forgotten what it feels like.
For the first time in a veritable age, the Magic measure among the league leaders in generating free-throws. An easy-to-overlook component of the game, the value of the modest free-throw is multi-faceted: it’s the only scoring attempt guaranteed to be unguarded; it keeps the scoreboard ticking over when more difficult shots aren’t falling; and it puts pressure on the opposition as they risk incurring further penalties. Hell, a free-throw can even increase the value of an already made basket!
And, for many, many years now, the Magic just haven’t been able to earn ‘em.
That is, of course, until the arrival of Paolo Banchero. The imposing 6-10 forward out of Duke has already cemented a reputation as a foul-drawing machine, posting volume from the stripe that Central Florida hasn’t witnessed in years. He racked up seven in his debut. Two games later he hit double-figures for the first time, a mark he has now reached on eight occasions. He set a career-high of 15 in the first week of December. Only twice has he ever had less than four attempts. He has gotten to the free-throw line over and over, hitting a healthy clip when he’s there.
Best of all? This facet of Banchero’s game has signaled a shift in the offensive profile of the entire team. What has previously been a significant weakness is turning into an advantage to be leveraged, a factor which has the potential to one day serve as a key pillar in an efficient offense.
The Magic are still a long way from that realized possibility, obviously. But Banchero’s knack for free-throw generation – and the new facet of the team’s identity that it has unearthed – means that an improved offense in Orlando now feels like a real possibility.
Banchero, foul magnet
In fewer than 40 games, Banchero has already established himself as a foul-drawing magnet with the ball in hand. His 7.8 free-throw attempts per-contest comfortably paces the Magic, as does his gargantuan free-throw rate of .492 – he’s good for almost one shot at the stripe with every two field-goal attempts he gets up. The rookie generates many of these opportunities on hard drives to the basket, with his nightly tally of 3.2 free-throws from drives placing him eighth league-wide, despite the fact that he ranks just forty-eighth in total drives per-game (10.2).
Crunch those driving numbers a little further and it’s revealed that only one player averaging at least 7.0 drives each night across the entire NBA is more likely to draw a foul than Banchero on such sequences – Giannis. That’s it. In season number one the Magic’s rookie already stands alongside one of the league’s most dominant and accomplished stars when it comes to creating and absorbing contact while looking to score.
76.0% shooting from the stripe means that Banchero’s generating 28.0% of his total points from the line, the sixth greatest percentage league-wide among all players seeing at least an average of 20 minutes per-game. Despite currently being afflicted by well below-average accuracy on both two and three-point attempts – a common occurrence for rookies! – the volume of free-throws that he generates is helping to buoy his true shooting percentage, a metric by which he ranks more favorably and closer to expectations. His efficiency isn’t yet where it needs to be, but his foul-drawing ability suggests that it will get there sooner rather than later.
How do magnets work?
Banchero isn’t arriving at these impressive numbers by luck. Instead, the smooth forward has a plethora of skills and attributes that facilitate such an outcome. He’s possessed of an aggressive personality on offense, a player who attacks the hoop with intent and isn’t afraid to send his body on a collision course into contact. Assisting with this is his nimble footwork and deceptively quick acceleration, often evident in a first step that shifts his immediate defender from directly in front to on his hip. Once someone is in that position the angles and lanes available overwhelmingly favor the offense, a fact which Banchero consistently puts to good use.
Further adding to his ability to get to the line is the manner in which the rookie elevates the ball once he gathers his dribble. With a secure grip he quickly gets the ball well above both dribble height and the level where an opponent’s hands would naturally sit, forcing the defender to either extend or reach to make a play. This sort of physical positioning frequently generates an advantage in those sequences where Banchero barrels into the lane, helping to ensure a frequency of favorable whistles for the rookie forward.
Comparison and Context
Banchero’s foul-drawing exploits compare incredibly favorably to many of his more-seasoned peers. Even as a rookie Paolo already ranks fourteenth in free-throws per-game, just behind DeMar DeRozan and a slot ahead of Kevin Durant. We know that early-career players tend to get a weaker whistle in the league, a result of both their relative inexperience as they adjust to the nuances of the professional game and the unconscious biases that can influence officials. In this regard, what Banchero is already achieving flies in the face of conventional basketball wisdom.
Lest it seem that too much is being made about his performance in this one facet of the game, it’s worth acknowledging the players with whom he’s figuratively rubbing foul-drawing shoulders. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the top twenty in free-throws per-game basically reads as a rundown of the likely All-Star participants. In fact, all nineteen of those immediate peers are either shoe-ins for the mid-season showcase or so in the mix that their exclusion would provoke understandable outrage in certain corners. You can even keep going down the list! Twenty-one? LeBron. Twenty-three? Sabonis. Twenty-four? Donovan Mitchell. The league’s biggest foul-magnets almost invariably happen to be its top players.
(Interesting note: sitting in twenty-second place is Pacers rookie Bennedict Mathurin. In poking around the data connected to free-throws he frequently shows up within shouting distance of Orlando’s first-year phenom. It’s pretty wild to see two guys pop this way in year one.)
Evaluating his free-throw shooting by frequency paints a perhaps even more impressive picture. Among all eligible players (250+ minutes) Banchero’s .492 free-throw rate ranks fifteenth. However, almost every player currently ahead of him on that list is either a usually-at-the-basket center or a heliocentric offense unto themselves (Doncic; Gilgeous-Alexander). Otherwise it’s only Harrison Barnes (!), Giannis and Paolo.
From the perspective of the Magic, Banchero’s ability to get to the line represents a type of dependable offense creation that the franchise has rarely enjoyed. Other than attention-demanding centers like Shaq and Dwight, one has to go back to the years of Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill to find a perimeter player who marries free-throw and usage rates in the way that Paolo does.
What does this mean for the Magic?
Banchero’s arrival as a foul-drawing force has immediately altered the complexion of the team. At the surface level, the Magic are averaging their most free-throw attempts per-game since 2011. But it goes further than that. This unit is generating more drives – and more frequent free-throws from those forays – than any Orlando side of the last decade. The team lurks less in the often inefficient mid-range. A player of Paolo’s talent and disposition has encouraged the team to follow suit.
Led by their rookie, the Magic currently have three players attempting more than four free-throws each night: Banchero’s 7.8, Franz Wagner’s 4.5, and Wendell Carter Jr’s 4.1. To establish the contextual significance of this, consider that the Magic have had only three instances of a player hitting the 4.0 attempts per-game threshold in the last seven years, with Evan Fournier’s trade-interrupted 4.7 in 2020/21 the most prolific of the bunch. It’s no surprise that the team has been seemingly stapled to the bottom of the league rankings in free-throw metrics prior to Paolo’s arrival.
Franz’s sophomoric free-throw rate of .297 is a noticeable improvement over the mark he set as a rookie. Wendell Carter Jr.’s .375 is handily his best mark since arriving in Central Florida. Moe Wagner and Cole Anthony are both currently setting career-highs via the metric. Even Markelle Fultz and Mo Bamba have pushed their numbers up relative to recent campaigns. That’s the majority of the nightly rotation making either an above-average or simply better-than-expected contribution at the charity stripe.
Bring this all together and you’ve got a team that now resides comfortably amongst the league’s most regular visitors to the free-throw line. On the season Orlando has attempted the 10th most free-throws per-game with 25.1, a nightly total arrived at via the fifth strongest free-throw rate (.294) and the fourth most freebies made per-field goal attempt (.233). The Magic are a team that both gets to the line and then cashes in while they’re there.
As is all too well known, this current Orlando outfit isn’t one that strikes fear into the hearts of the opposition courtesy of their outside shooting. They don’t force enough turnovers to generate much scoring in transition. Even their finishing inside the arc is a pedestrian fifteenth league-wide. Many of the avenues by which a team could normally eke out an advantage simply aren’t available to this side.
That’s why it’s so important that they leverage this burgeoning offensive identity, consolidating it as an area on the court where they can clearly claim the upper hand on a nightly basis. While working to minimize the reciprocal opportunities that their defense cedes, the Magic must remain committed to a style of play that puts inside pressure on the opposition and that allows a roster already with some natural proclivity for drawing fouls to continue to find their way to the free-throw line. It’s something that with further experience and shrewd acquisitions can eventually be cemented as a foundational element of a sustainable and effective offense.
Paolo Banchero makes that possible.